What Is Res Ipsa Loquitur?
Res ipsa loquitur is a legal concept that lawyers use to justify proving a defendant’s negligence through the use of circumstantial evidence alone. This concept exists because it is not always possible to provide direct proof of a defendant’s liability, even when it is obvious that a particular accident could not have happened without negligence.
Res Ipsa Loquitur as a Rule of Evidence
You can interpret res ipsa loquitur in this way by noting that certain types of circumstantial evidence can constitute prima facie evidence of liability even in the absence of direct proof.
“Prima facie evidence” evidence means enough to win your claim unless the other side counters with persuasive evidence to the contrary. Once you have that much evidence, you don’t have to submit any more evidence to win unless your opponent submits more.
What It Normally Takes To Prove Negligence
In most negligence cases (that do not rely on res ipsa loquitur), you must prove four facts to qualify for compensation:
- The defendant owed you a duty of care;
- The defendant breached their duty of care;
- You suffered a personal injury; and
- The defendant’s breach of duty is what caused your injury.
You might prove, for example, that the defendant left a pair of roller skates in a stairwell while you were visiting. If you fell down the stairs and broke your hip after you slipped on the skates, you might have a fairly convincing case of liability based on negligence.
The Burden of Proof
If you are demanding monetary damages from the defendant, you must prove that the defendant is liable. In a personal injury lawsuit, this burden is called “a preponderance of the evidence,” and it is not very onerous. All you need to do is to prove to the court that your version of events is more likely than not to be true. Even slightly more likely than not is enough, which is why some people refer to it as the “51% standard.”
What It Takes To Prove a Res Ipsa Loquitur Claim
Suppose, instead of falling down a flight of stairs, you were hit in the head by a hammer falling from the sky as you walked past an under-construction skyscraper. If all you know is that you got hit in the head by a flying hammer, you might consider using res ipsa loquitur to prove your claim. The facts you need to prove a res ipsa loquitur are:
- The accident almost certainly could not happen unless somebody was careless. This one is easy to prove since hammers cannot fly.
- The defendant owed you a duty of care, and they controlled the circumstances that caused your injury. Agents who perform construction work owe a duty of care to the public. This duty includes preventing hammers from falling from buildings.
- Circumstances exonerate all parties except the defendant. If the defendant was performing construction on the building, if the hammer belonged to the defendant, and if nobody else was working with hammers nearby, the evidence tends to point to the defendant by a process of elimination.
Please note that a company is responsible for its employee’s negligent acts. The company can bear liability for the negligence of its employees under the legal doctrine of respondeat superior.
Examples of Possible Res Ipsa Loquitur Claims
Following are a few more examples of common scenarios that might call for a res ipsa loquitur legal strategy:
- Wrong site surgery: A surgery removes the wrong kidney from a patient, for example.
- Mistaken identity: A doctor operates on the wrong patient.
- Leaving a foreign object (such as a scalpel) inside the patient’s body after surgery.
- A cigarette lighter explodes, scarring the user’s face.
- Automobile airbags fail to deploy during an auto accident.
In all of the foregoing cases, directly proving negligence would be difficult or even impossible.
Possible Defenses to a Res Ipsa Loquitur Claim
The defendant might other the following defenses:
- The accident would have occurred anyway (in other words, negligence, even if present, did not cause the accident).
- The injured victim caused the accident due to their own misconduct. Blame-shifting can be a partial defense or a complete defense against liability.
- The statute of limitations deadline has already passed. In Georgia, you generally have until two years after an accident to file a personal injury lawsuit. If the victim dies, you have until two years after the date of death to file a wrongful death lawsuit.
Many other defenses might apply, depending on the circumstances of your injury.
A Seasoned Atlanta Personal Injury Lawyer Can Help You Prepare and Present Your Res Ipsa Loquitur Claim
It can be difficult to recognize when it is appropriate to invoke res ipsa loquitur. Ultimately, res ipsa loquitur claims require the exercise of mature legal judgment. It can be even trickier to prove liability to the satisfaction of a trial court or an insurance company. A skilled Atlanta personal injury lawyer is a near-necessity under such circumstances.